Lotus leaves (荷葉) are the fresh leaves of the lotus picked from June to September and used after they are dried. Lotus is widely cultivated in China, India, and Japan with many culinary and medicinal uses. In Asian cuisine, lotus leaves are most commonly used to wrap rice and chicken with Asian flavors and steamed to give a pleasant aroma. When prepared this way, lotus leaves help to relieve and expel Fire Heat (熱氣) from the body. Hence they have diaphoretic properties and are categorized as febrifuges (herbs that reduce fever while cleansing the body). Lotus leaves also help digestion, whet the appetite, moisten the body and quench thirst.
Healthy eating has gained a more widespread view of being essential rather than a luxury as we gain more knowledge and increased awareness of nutrition and its impact on our bodily functions. We have known long ago that a daily intake of vitamins is important to incorporate into our meal choices. Before the rise of naturalistic/holistic medicine and the merging of ethnic cultures (ie, fusion cuisines), the popular view was that healthy eating was less tasteful and that obtaining adequate nutrition via supplementation was unattainable without wealth.
The dawn of our current Information Age has revolutionized, among many things, the accessibility of self-education. Communication barriers have been overcome and the sharp lines that used to define different cultures have been grayed. With this diversification came much curiosity to explore the wisdom that other cultures have to offer. Many of you will know about the medicinal properties of the now popular Chinese herbs Ginseng (人蔘) and Goji berries (枸杞子). But I would like to share with you that there are many inexpensive and ordinary ingredients that are also nourishing, and these are available to anyone who simply has an open heart.
In this recipe, I took a comforting Asian lotus leaf rice (荷葉飯) dish and chose to incorporate certain Chinese herbs to strengthen the body’s health:
Candied dates (蜜棗). These are the large dates which grow in the city of Yiwu (義烏) in central Zhejiang (浙江) province of China. People from the Anhui (安徽) province of China process them into candied dates and the fleshy ones are the best. The most abundant candied dates originate from the Huizhou (徽州) city of Anhui, from which their name is derived. Candied dates treat Yin (陰) deficiency by restoring body fluids and nourishing the blood, while strengthening Yang (陽). They also benefit the Chi, moisten the body, and promote the functions of the spleen.
Longan (龍眼). These are literally translated as “dragon’s eyes”, but are also called Gui Yuan (桂圓). It grows in places like Guangdong in China. They can be eaten raw or steamed and dried. Longan fruit whets the appetite, benefits the spleen, strengthens the Chi and calms the nerves, strengthens the male reproductive system, and treats bloating in women after labour.
Goji (枸杞). Its name is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of “枸杞”, which is “gou qi”. Gou Qi is a perennial plant that produces fruit berries known as Qi Zi (杞子), wolfberry, or its commercial name goji berry. The Gou Qi plant grows in places like China, Japan, and Korea. Its goji berries contain iron, calcium and phosphorus and is useful for lowering blood sugar, improving eyesight, balancing blood pressure, and strengthening the Jing (精) essence that nourishes the body.
The Chinese herbal ingredients in this recipe combined with the marinated chicken, Chinese sausage and pork belly produced a beautiful aroma with succulent Asian flavors that are brought out through the steaming process. I served it as one dinner course by itself with 5 people (in a meal with 5 courses, as typical with Chinese feasts). And to my delight, my dish has received positive compliments as being healthier, tastier, and better portioned than the lotus leaf sticky rice dishes that you order in Chinese restaurants. It’s relatively easy to make compared to other Asian dishes that require several cooking methods, and it is versatile in how you present it at the table: it looks equally impressive when served in individual bowls, on a plate, or left inside the lotus leaf at the table. This is one of my more prized recipes, and I’m happy to share it with you!
6 chicken drumsticks or thighs
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 star aniseed, broken into points
3 scallions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 cups sticky rice or sushi rice
1 large dried lotus leaf
8 dried shiitake mushrooms (香菇)
1/4 cup Goji berries (枸杞)
1/4 cup dried longan (桂圓肉)
3 tbsp peanut oil
2 links Chinese sausage, diced (臘腸)
1 strip Chinese cured pork belly (60 g), diced (臘肉)
2 candied dates (徽州蜜棗)
3 scallions, finely chopped
3 tbsp finely chopped peeled ginger
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Asian sesame oil
Rinse the drumsticks over running cool water and drain well. Using a sharp utility knife, remove the skin and fat from the drumsticks. Cut the meat off the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces. Be sure to remove the tendons. Place chicken pieces into a large bowl and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the 1/4 cup light soy sauce and hoisin sauce. Set aside.
Heat the 2 tbsp peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the star anise and cook, stirring, until toasted (about 10 seconds). Add the scallions and garlic and cook for another 30 seconds until fragrant.
Add the soy sauce mixture and simmer until slightly reduced (about 2 minutes).
Pour into the bowl with the chicken and toss to coat. Cover and set aside to marinate. I marinated the chicken for 2 hours at room temperature and it turned out delicious.
Make ahead instructions: At this point, you can also cover and refrigerate overnight to continue the next day.
Put the 3 cups of rice in the bowl of a rice cooker. Rinse the rice with cool running water by running the water into the rice cooker bowl and stirring the rice with your hands. Try to drain as much water from the pot as possible, and repeat once more. Add 3 1/4 cups cool water and cook the sticky rice in the rice cooker. Spread the cooked rice out onto a rimmed baking sheet and let cool.
Soak the lotus leaf in a sink or roasting pan with warm water until pliable (about 30 minutes).
Soak the mushrooms, goji berries, candied dates, and dried longan in a clean bowl with cool water until softened (about 30 minutes).
Drain and reserve the soaking water. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice coarsely.
Heat the 3 tbsp peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir fry the Chinese sausage and cured pork belly until golden (about 3 minutes).
Add the chopped scallions and ginger and stir fry for another 30 seconds or until fragrant. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dish out the ingredients into a bowl and set aside. Immediately add the chicken pieces to the hot skillet using chopsticks or tongs, so as to avoid adding all the marinade. Stir fry for about 3 to 5 minutes on each side or until cooked through.
Add the sausage mixture back into the skillet.
Add the mushrooms, goji berries, and longan and stir fry just until the mushrooms are soft and all the ingredients are mixed well (about 2 minutes more).
Add the mushroom soaking liquid and the 3 tbsp soy sauce and cook until the liquid is reduced a little (about 2 to 4 minutes more). Turn off the heat and remove the skillet from the heat.
Place the cooled rice into a large mixing bowl. Toss the cooled rice with the 3 tsp sesame oil, making sure the rice is coated well. Add all the ingredients from the skillet to the rice and toss well until all the ingredients are combined.
Bring a large wok full halfway full of water to a boil over high heat with a steaming rack inside. Center the softened lotus leaf onto a large Chinese bamboo steamer. Scoop the rice mixture onto the lotus leaf and pat firmly.
Fold the leaf over to cover the rice and secure with toothpicks.
Place the bamboo steamer on the steaming rack, cover the wok, and steam on high for about 10 to 15 minutes. Unwrap and serve, scooping the rice into small bowls.
If you don’t have a wok, you can use the microwave. Simply place the lotus leaf onto a 9-inch pie dish. Scoop the rice into the lotus leaf, fold the leaf the cover the rice, and secure with toothpicks.
Then cover the lotus leaf with a dampened dish towel. Wrap the dish tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high until warm (about 15 minutes). Unwrap and serve, scooping the rice into small bowls.